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How to Eat Maine's Famous Lobster Like a Local : Forget the white tablecloth. Don't expect a bib. Do expect a messy, delectable experience.

August 02, 1992|JOAN DRAKE | Drake, a former Times' Food Section managing editor, now lives in Maine.

PORTLAND, Me. — If you're coming to Maine for a lobster dinner, forget about eating in white-tablecloth restaurants. Certainly there are plenty that serve the state's culinary specialty, but to sample it in a fancy restaurant is to miss one of the pleasures of dining in Maine. For an authentic taste of the state's royal seafood, head for one of Maine's modest "lobster shacks"--the no-frills restaurants that dot the coastline and are better known to locals than to tourists.

Just a few weeks ago, I took friends from Los Angeles, where I lived for 25 years, to a little place overlooking Casco Bay, an inlet off the Atlantic Ocean. The weather had just cleared after two days of rain and the emerald islands dotting the bay looked lush in the evening light. Dressed in jeans and sweat shirts and enjoying some good Napa Valley wine and tender, sweet lobster with old friends, we sat at picnic tables and reflected on the beauty of a view that would never be mistaken for Southern California because of its quiet, calm waters dappled with dozens of isles trimmed with fir trees.

Like other lobster shacks, this one--Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Company--was a wharf-side structure with adjacent picnic tables. Most are little more than small wooden buildings, open from sometime in May to mid-October. Usually they have limited inside seating, but additional outdoor picnic tables. Few offer table service.

Typically you place your order at a walk-up window and watch as the lobster is taken from a salt-water holding tank and weighed, then placed in a wire basket and plunged into a steam-boiler.

At many shacks you can buy an ear of corn, still in the husk, a dozen clams (often called "steamers") or a crab or two to be cooked along with the lobster. Prices vary from place to place and change frequently, but you can expect to pay about $15 for a 1 1/4-pound lobster (usually enough for one), a dozen steamers and an ear of corn. Some shacks accept credit cards, but most take only cash.

Additional accompaniments--chowder, French fries, coleslaw, salad, onion rings, homemade pies--are sometimes available. They may need to be ordered at another window, but if you let the order taker know you have lobster cooking, they are surprisingly good at coordinating the timing so that all segments of your order show up simultaneously.

Seldom do these restaurants have a liquor license, but you're welcome to bring beer or wine and there's no corkage fee. Just sit back, relax and sip until your order numbers are called in about 15 minutes.

The view will likely be spectacular. From the Lobster Shack Restaurant at Cape Elizabeth, you can watch ships pass the lighthouse and enter Portland Harbor from destinations around the world. At Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster in South Freeport, you look out over the town wharf where local lobstermen bring in their daily catch in seaworthy little boats that are utilitarian, if not pretty.

The steaming hot lobster is served on cardboard trays with little plastic cups of melted butter, nutcrackers, plastic picks and paper napkins. Don't expect a bib. Do expect lobster-eating to be a messy, delectable experience.

If you're a novice at tackling a whole lobster, begin by twisting off the large front claws where they join the body, then remove the smaller legs along each side. Grasping the tail with one hand and the body with the other, separate the sections by either arching the back until it cracks or twisting the two apart.

Set the body portion aside. Remove the meat from the tail by breaking off the flippers, then slide a fork between the soft underside of the tail and give the meat a firm push or pull. (If it doesn't release, cut through the underside of the shell with a knife.)

Remove the back shell from the body portion, split the body in half and remove the feathery lungs and stomach sac. Scoop out the yellow-green tomalley (liver) and any coral roe. If desired, these may be eaten as is, or combined with the melted butter for dipping.

Use the cracking tool to break the shells of the claws and legs, then free the meat with the pick. You can also draw the meat out of the legs by sipping on them like straws.

Maine lobsters are reputed to be sweetest this time of year, just after they've shed their shells. The natural growth process, called molting, occurs as the lobster outgrows its inelastic shell.

Just before molting, the lobster's flesh become stringy and watery and the meat in the large claws shrinks. Experienced lobstermen recognize these signs and return any lobsters caught at this stage to the water.

Once molting has occurred, the shell immediately begins to harden and the meat once again becomes flavorful. These lobsters are called "new shell," "soft shell" or "shedders." Because they're too delicate for shipping, these lobsters can be enjoyed only at local restaurants or homes. The plentiful supply drives market prices down.

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